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Hail to the Chief 

Muckraking Marthas fete Nielsen with activism, baked goods

click to enlarge California Assemblywoman Patty Berg (left), Eureka Police Chief Garr Nielsen, County Supervisor Bonnie Neely and former Arcata councilmember and mayor Connie Stewart. Photo by Ryan Burns
  • California Assemblywoman Patty Berg (left), Eureka Police Chief Garr Nielsen, County Supervisor Bonnie Neely and former Arcata councilmember and mayor Connie Stewart. Photo by Ryan Burns

Sue Brandenburg -- Eureka's grande dame of activism, the domestic demagogue of the West Side -- figured the police chief could use a cookie. And some punch. Maybe a piece of homemade carrot cake with a little sculpted-frosting carrot on top. Above all, she surmised, he needed the city's public safety budget to remain fully funded. The City Council recently approved its draft budget, which addresses Eureka's $32 million budget gap by allowing for possible cuts from all sorts of areas, including public safety. Nothing will be finalized until union negotiations are completed and public comment taken at Tuesday's council meeting. But as Councilman Larry Glass noted in voting against the draft budget, public safety cuts are indeed on the table.

Brandenburg wasn't gonna stand for that. Over the years she's taken on everything from the Eureka Redevelopment Agency to the city's approval of certain drug-treatment houses to Verizon's new Henderson Center cell tower (disguised as an ugly church bell tower, which now hovers over her own property). But nothing gets her goat like crime. "We can't afford to have our police laid off because the budget can't handle it," she told the Journal last week. "We need to just make it a priority."

So Brandenburg decided to host a gathering in her own backyard. Literally. With help from her cohorts in the West Side Improvement League, she set out to sprinkle the gears of government with cookie crumbs, to incite a movement with sweets, to entice the citizenry (and local media, hello) Hansel and Gretel-style through her open garage door and into her lush, flower-filled yard. There, mingling and munching in the Sunday sunshine like amiable church-folk, local luminaries gathered to express support for Eureka Police Chief Garr Nielsen, Eureka Fire Chief Eric Smith and the public safety these two men represent.

Nielsen himself, recently exonerated by the Grand Jury of charges including unauthorized use of city property, illegal hiring practices and abuse of authority (see "Broken Blue Line," July 2), seemed to be feeling pretty good. "I was invited to this event by Sue," he said, iced tea in-hand, wife nearby. "She explained it to me as an opportunity for the community to turn out and support public safety."

In arguing for the need for such an event, Brandenburg called attention to statistics she'd found online showing Eureka's violent crime rate to be higher than that of Oakland. And she's right: The stats are intimidating (if debatable). Real estate research site neighborhoodscout.com, for example, ranks the city a two on a crime scale of one to 100, meaning it's safer than only two percent of cities in the U.S. Nielsen was in the middle of explaining why ("During the day, our population doubles," he said) when former Assemblywoman Patty Berg strolled into the yard.

"Hi, Honey," she said cheerily.

"Hey! How you doin'?" came Nielsen's sing-song response. "Oh, I'm so glad you're here."

"Bonnie and I came, and Connie came, too," Berg said, referring to County Supervisor Bonnie Neely and former Arcata Mayor, Councilwoman and Berg employee Connie Stewart, who were strolling in behind her. Turning to the reporter, Berg announced, "We love our chief of police."

Like the Grand Jury, the people in Brandenburg's backyard all seemed to feel that the resistance Nielsen has encountered within his own department stems from stubborn old-schoolers averse to needed reforms.

"He came in at a very difficult time, and he actually had to implement change," Neely said. "And that's not always popular." She cited the EPD's newly formed partnerships with other law enforcement agencies including the Sheriff's Department, the CHP and the District Attorney's office as examples of positive changes Nielsen has made at the department. "I think he's done a great job," Neely said.

Councilwoman Linda Atkins, who brought along her wife and sister to meet the chief, said she appreciates Nielsen's community- and problem-oriented policing efforts and vowed to "hold the line" on any cuts to public safety. "People in the West Side and the poorer parts of town have been really impressed with the changes in the police force and the police's attitude toward the citizens," Atkins said.

Between offerings of sweets, Brandenburg handed out fliers to attendees, urging them to continue "the groundswell of support from the people of Eureka," exemplified, she says, by the passage last year of Measures D and E, tax increases benefiting the general fund. The flier included the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of Mayor Virginia Bass, City Manager David Tyson and all five City Council members.

Nielsen didn't seem too worried, though. "I'm not here to advocate for [people] to contact the City Council about the budget. In a very difficult economic situation, the council has been extraordinarily supportive of us," he said diplomatically. "I think the draft budget indicates a great deal of support for public safety."

Wait. You're saying these charming ladies are protesting possible public safety cuts when the chief of police himself is comfortable with the draft budget? "I am comfortable with the draft budget, yes," Nielsen said. "Regardless of what the decision is, I'll take the resources I've been given and do the best job I can with them."

That's still not good enough for Sue Brandenburg. "I know Sue," Nielsen said affectionately. "She's one of those people who's very vocal about the things she supports and the things she doesn't support."

Fortunately for Nielsen, he's on her good side.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Bio:
Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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